I’m finally joining my first Classics Club spin. In it I trust random chance to provide me with my next reading for the Classics Club. Or, perhaps not my next one, I already have a few I’m reading, but at least a book which I need to read before April 30th 2018. The rules were simple, make a numbered list of twenty books from my Classics Club reading list and on the 9th of March the Classics Club will provide me with the number drawn and thus tell me which of my books I should read.
The books I selected are:
- de Beauvoir, Simone: The Second Sex
- Boye, Karin: Kallocain
- Carter, Angela: Night at the Circus
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
- Fogelström, Per Anders: Mina drömmars stad (City of My Dreams)
- Ibsen, Henrik: Peer Gynt
- Lie, Jonas: Fortellinger i utvalg (Selected stories)
- Linna, Väinö: Okänd soldat (The Unknown Soldier)
- Mansfield, Katherine: Short story collection
- Moberg, Vilhelm: Din stund på jorden (A Time on Earth)
- Morrison, Toni: Beloved
- Plath, Sylvia: Ariel
- Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea
- Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
- Scott, Robert Falcon: Scott’s last expedition
- Sturlasson, Snorre: Heimskringla
- Tikkanen, Märta: Arnaía kastad i havet
- Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
- Undset, Sigrid: Kransen (The Wreath, Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, part one)
- Walker, Alice: The Color Purple
To make it easy for myself most of the books I selected I already own. A few of them I’m really longing to read (2, 3, 17) whereas others I fear would be heavier reads (8, 19). One of them, Heimskringla at number 16, I dread.
Wish me luck!
Edit 17.03.2018: And the lucky number is 3! It looks like the well-wishes worked, I’m really eager to read Angela Carter’s Night at the Circus!
It may be because I spend too much time musing in front of my bookshelves rather than actually reading my books but I really enjoy rearranging my bookshelves (to a moderate extent of course). My library (that is, the part of my living room where my bookcases live) is not large enough for the books to actually need to be sorted in alphabetical order and as I’m the primary user I instead try sort them in ways that makes sense to me. Mostly that means that I place books that I feel somehow belong together adjacent to each other in the bookshelves but there are often multiple interesting ways to that. My books by Lewis Carroll for example give a different impression next to my books about the history of mathematics than they would have if I had placed them among my children’s books. That also means that every time I reorganize my bookshelves I get to see some of my books in a new light.
Moving is of course the major reason for re-sorting a library. After one move I placed all my “books I find brilliant by woman authors” in age order on the same shelf and could suddenly see a line of great authors stretching back to Sei Shōnagon. Rather than individual authors they became part of a great history.
As in any categorizing effort I of course ended up with multiple difficult decisions. What if I loved one book by an author (A Room of Ones Own) but struggled with another (Mrs Dalloway) should I place one of them on the brilliant books shelf and the other in the general fiction section or prioritize keeping them together (and if so, where)? Should I include children’s books? What with books that could be placed on this shelf but also really should be placed in one of my other categories? To solve these issues I allowed myself to make some rather arbitrary decisions. Woolf and Sayers got one work each on my canon bookshelf with their other works shelved in other places whereas I kept all my Tove Jansson’s adult fiction together for now. I excluded children’s books not to overcrowd the shelf although that sadly excludes Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren which is otherwise a key work in my personal book canon. The final result may not be my ultimate personal book canon but it is close enough for now.
These are the books that currently live on my brilliant books bookshelf:
- The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
- The collected works by Jane Austen
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
- Selected poems by Emily Dickinson
- Gösta Berlings’s saga by Selma Lagerlöf
- A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
- The Summer Book and various short stories collections by Tove Jansson
- Mörkret som ger glädjen djup and Love Story of the Century by Märta Tikkanen
- The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter
- Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch
I find it very satisfying that whenever the world tries to tell me about a literary canon filled by male authors with only the rare woman scattered in it I can look in my own bookshelf and see an unbroken line of brilliant female authors and know that there is more than one truth.
This blog post was inspired by a discussion on Calmgrove’s blog about various ways to link different books. I was also inspired by this article about the art of unpacking a library from The Paris Review.
The best thing about reading book blogs are all the great books you get exposed to. I could still have been completely oblivious to the existence of the excellent novel City folk and country folk if it weren’t for Kaggsy’s blog post about it and now when I’ve read it I just want to spread the word further.
City folk and country folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (translation by Nora Seligman Favorov) is a comedy of manner with sharp observations and wit not dissimilar to a Jane Austen novel. Of course comparing it to a Jane Austen novel sets the bar impossibly high, it is very good but it doesn’t have the tight writing of an Austen novel. What it offers instead is insight into the lives of Russian rural gentry, observations on the social changes that occurred in Russia during the 1860s and a plot which I wasn’t sure where it would take me. It was a perfect novel to ease myself back into my classics reading again. Unfortunately this novel seems to be the only text from the author that has been translated into English but one of her sisters, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, has a translated novel, The Boarding-School Girl, which I now long to read.
You should read this novel if you
- want to read a 19th century Russian classics but want to avoid the thicker or more tragic novels,
- love Jane Austen’s novels (just don’t expect it to actually be a Jane Austen novel), or
- if you just like the thought of reading a little known but excellent Russian 19th century author.
(Personally I’m guilty of all three)
I found some interesting and more in-depth reviews of this book here, here and here, although they, especially the two later, do give out a bit of the plot so if you want to avoid that they may be best read after the novel.
I’m counting this one as my 19th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge. There’s still time, until March 1st, to sign up to this challenge if you are interested.
Finishing La Vita Nuova I suddenly felt that I had read too many heavy classics during 2018. That is demonstrably not true, my reading statistics tells me that out of the eleven books I’ve read this year only La Vita Nuova was a challenging read and five were children’s books but apparently that was enough.
However, it was clearly time for a change of pace and as light page-turners do not linger unread long on my bookshelves what I found was an Agatha Christie where I had conveniently forgotten who the murderer was. Cat Among The Pigeons takes place at a private girls school and involve a coup in a fictional country, missing jewels and secret agents. It is technically a Poirot novel but Poirot only plays a very peripheral role in it. I really enjoy the Christie stories that edge into adventure stories territory. They may be even less realistic than her standard crime novels but they are usually a lot of fun.
Agatha Christie x 3
The secret adversary: This one is a wild and improbable story full of secret agents. More importantly it is the first book to feature Tommy and Tuppence which I find to be some of Christie’s best characters. Great fun!
The Pale Horse: The creepiest Christie I’ve read so far and one of her best. Neither Poirot nor miss Marple makes an appearance which is a good thing, not because I don’t like those characters, I do, but because it is harder to guess where the novel is going when they are absent.
Towards zero: This one is more of a standard Christie mystery but a very good one. Once again without Poirot or miss Marple.
I count Cat Among The Pigeons, published in 1959, as my classic crime story for the Back to the classics reading challenge.
The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.
I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.
La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.
In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year. In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.
So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.
I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.
La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.
The Dark is Rising in Susan Cooper’s classical fantasy series and the only thing that can stop it are the combined forces of a group of modern children (well 1960s children) and the heroes of Arthurian legends.
I have recently spent some enjoyable days with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (well, four out of five books in it, I somehow missed the first one at the library). There are some parts that felt a little dated but overall this is a classic series that have stood the test of time very well, I’m sure I would have loved it as a child. As an adult I greatly enjoyed the first book I read in the series (Over Sea Under Stone) but lost interest a bit when it came to the sequels. I don’t think they are actually worse in any way but to me the real draw was the world-building and the mixture of modern children and Arthurian legends. This theme runs through the entire series but in the sequels it was no longer new and therefore less exciting.
As these are children’s books they are not too heavy on the darkness which I’m sure was a good choice for the intended audience. Personally I would have preferred them to be somewhat more nerve-racking. Nevertheless these are well-written and fun books with a good concept which worked reasonably well as a light read also for an adult reader.
What the series also did succeed in was to convince me that I want to learn more about the Arthurian legends (sometime, eventually). I’m not British and my knowledge of these legends can basically be summarized as a bunch of names and a sword in a stone which is somehow important.
I count Over Sea Under Stone (published in 1965) as my children’s classic in the 2018 back to the classics challenge.
I may have been somewhat unconvinced of the greatness of The Little Prince but Wind, sand and stars, also by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, more than made up for it.
The author was a pilot in the early days of air traffic and the memoir contains thrilling descriptions of these pioneering aviators and the dangers facing them. I would have loved this book for the flight scenes alone but it contains much more. Written as a collection of loosely connected essays it is partly a memoir of the early days of flying, partly a celebration of life and humanity. In the end there is also a chapter about a visit in Spain during the civil war. It should feel disjointed but somehow the language and the love of life ties it together.
In the memoir he carefully describes the pilots, their air-crafts and the lofty world they inhabit. I especially enjoyed his description of the world below, written at a time when few people had been in a plane I imagine it must have sounded a bit like the astronauts’ descriptions of the world from space does to us.
It was written during the 1930s and his descriptions of the people he met during his time in Sahara are sometimes uncomfortable. However, unlike many of his contemporaries he had the advantage of writing about people he had interacted with and to some degree clearly respected. The result may not be a fair description of the people of Sahara but it’s probably a true portrait of how they would have appeared to a Frenchman at the time. As such I found it very interesting. I also appreciated his obvious love for Sahara, where he lived a few years, and which I felt resembled my own love for the Arctic.
All in all I greatly enjoyed this memoir and found it both thought-provoking and beautiful. I may not agree with all of his views but I found it a very worth-while read and am glad that the Classics club challenge made me discover it.
The full list of classics I have read or plan to read in the Classics Club challenge can be found here. Two other reviews of this book can be found here and here.